Spec Ops: The Line has an uphill battle. There are no fewer than 9 billion different games simulating military operations. That the game is centered on a number of different military, terrorist and refugee factions inside of Dubai doesn’t help distinguish it to the average player. Is the United Arab Emirates noticeably different to the fictional Middle Eastern nation undergoing a coup in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare? Do they know that the indoor ski resort level is really a landmark in Dubai? That the game is dead set of telling a story that attempts to seriously confront the moral quagmire of war while still entertaining also won’t help it either. It’s a beautiful ambition but making people that just want to shoot each other online care is hard to say the least.

Though it’s under the radar compared to other games at E3 2012, Spec Ops: The Line acquits itself well, and it even offers up a little something more for people that still demand a multiplayer experience. Just three weeks before the game comes out, I got to sit down with creative lead Cory Davis to try out two of the game’s four free downloadable co-operative missions. Like the game itself, it seems familiar at first, but Spec Ops’ co-op is more than just another shooter.

What it is: an ass-kickingly difficult co-op shooter. The two missions we tried, Refugee Camp and The Gorge, were short. Start to finish they take maybe twenty minutes to complete, rushes against enemies in a series of three or four contained spaces. We played on Medium difficulty, the second of four difficulty settings, and both Davis and I were repeatedly gunned down at the opening of the Refugee camp, a narrow corridor of stalls and detritus. The difficulty is a testament to the cunning and aggressive artificial intelligence driving the game’s enemies. These guys won’t just stand there waiting for you to pop them off; they’ll flank you and your partner in intelligent, methodical ways, and will stand by necessary ammunition refills waiting for you to go for them.

We had better luck in The Gorge, a building area that had us pushing forward through two floors, one partner ideally covering the other on upper levels of the stage. Taking out the smart enemies in Spec Ops is a game of slowly gaining ground, pushing forward. While it looks like Gears of War and so many other cover-based shooters, Spec Ops requires patience and careful movement. That movement is frustrated by the game’s randomly appearing sandstorms, which obscure enemies. Another high mark for the AI is that the bad guys can’t automatically find you in the murk. It’s smartly done.

These co-op missions are hardly the main course in Spec Ops: The Line and ultimately they don’t tackle the thorny moral territory that is the single-player campaign’s main selling point. They are however demonstrative of the game’s strengths. Spec Ops may look and sound like so many other shooters but it is its own beast and it’s showing well just before release.